Bone Song (Gollancz S.F.)

Bone Song (Gollancz S.F.) - John Meaney Bone song is filed under "urban fantasy", but I'd put it under gothic dieselpunk. It takes place in a couple of different urban environs, both of which are left over by some long past (undescribed) civilization who's technology has been mostly forgotten. What does still work in this world is thaumaturgical based magic; "death" is not so much a final destination as a state of being with different shades, including "zombies" which function as living humans but need regular infusions of thaumaturgical energy and "wraiths" that are discorporal consciousnesses able to pass through matter. Naturally, magic is a very important part of how the world works. Mages and those who can commune with bones (of the both the living and the dead) replace computer nerds, engineers and doctors in our world. There are no computers or wireless communications. The world seems less like a well thought out construction and more like the world of the 50's, with some details changed around to replace technological solutions with magical ways of doing things. But it never really feels like it "gels" in a cohesive way; it's like pasting a lot of pretty baubles on the same suit you've seen a million times before, hoping the little shiny bits make the ensemble into something new. Unfortunately, I didn't feel like I was reading about events occuring in a well thought out world.

The story focuses on Donal Riordan, a hardboiled lieutenant in the metropolitan PD with a rough background and a reputation for being an incorruptible hardass (sound familiar?) who is tasked with protecting an opera star from a shadowy cult who has been abducting top-notch artists, presumably to glean visions from their bones. Without giving away too many spoilers, the protection detail doesn't go as Donal hoped. After all is said and done, he finds himself attached to a federal unit that is tasked specifically with breaking up the bone-thieving cult.

Somehow, Donal and his superior fall in love. And I say "somehow" because for no reason that's hinted, led up to, foreshadowed or makes any sense in terms of character complications they wind up in bed and almost immediately afterwords "fall in love" (sound familiar?). Now, I'm all about some hot'n'steamy human/zombie romance, don't get me wrong. But it feels like it was thrown in because Jason Meaney's pre-writing notes had these two character's arcs crossing, and maybe it was necessary for one or another plot development later. But there's nothing in the final book I read that makes it plausible. I don't need some drawn out courtship, but there wasn't even any hint of animal magentism. This, in my opinion, is amateurish and it detracted from my enjoyment of the story.

As the investigation continues, the leads take the team to higher and higher levels of government (sound familiar?) and the story goes off on a couple of tangents that eventually come back around to the main plot and characters, but only eventually. There were a few chapters, wherein some members of the federal team are working on rescuing an undercover agent who's been discovered and is being tortured, that really didn't need to happen so much. I think that whole section of the book was trying to explain that the team, aside from the newcomer Donal, is a tight unit that looks after their own and brooks no guff. Additionally, it showed off some of the skills of each of the teammembers, but in retrospect that handful of chapters felt manufactured. The characters and plot could both have been better advanced with subtler dialogue and crisper writing around the main plotline.

Eventually, Donal gets himself sent via aeroplane (see "dieselpunk", above) to another city to follow up on some leads on his own (sound familiar?). At this point in the book (maybe 75% through it), there's a lot of characters and while there's a lot of "clues", it's pretty clear what's going to happen, if not the exact way it'll play out. The trip to the other city had a situation occur that I can only describe as "contrived", and while Donal didn't understand what was happening, I the reader had even less idea what was going on, why, or what happened to Donal during the resolution. There just wasn't enough explanation of the situation and the characters involved to advance the mystery - another example events introducing plot complications wholly divorced from the preceeding story. At this point, there's 20%-15% of the book left, and I was getting the feeling that this was going to be one of those books where everything wraps up too cleanly in the last couple chapters.

It does. Within the span of the last 8%, everybody in the team resolves their reticences around "the new guy", a major suspect is "surprisingly" exonerated, the perpetrator trying to frame the suspect is caught (after a chase so laughable I don't know why Jason bothered), and the Big Bad Guys are interrupted in the middle of an evil ritual, but manage to slip through the fingers of justice (sound familiar?). The last couple of chapters do less to wrap up the story than setup the sequel, and the "heart wrenching twist" at the end seemed a bit extreme and implausible; it would have been nice to see Donal and Laura's relationship evolve - but given the light treatment characterization got throughout the book, perhaps it was best this way.

All in all, this was a readable noir detective story wrapped in the trappings of a gothic/dieselpunk setting. The character development was very shallow, but the action is fairly nonstop and the pacing - in as much as you only consider points of contention in the plot - was constant and fairly exciting. I would recommend this to fans of the gothic (as in "Sisters of Mercy" or "Fields of the Nephilim") look/feel, or anyone who wants a quick little noir detective story. There's nothing wrong with this book, despite my uncanny ability to detail things that annoy me. But I felt there was so much potential in these characters and the world they live that I can't help but feel a little shortchanged by the shallow characterization and incomplete world building.